The American Taliban

Violent hate groups continue to ride a rising tide of fear and bigotry

As American soldiers continue their search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Atlanta author Daniel Levitas warns that the threat posed by homegrown terrorists should not be overlooked. As evidence of the continued danger, he points to the case of William Krar, a 62-year-old manufacturer of gun parts and a right-wing extremist who has pleaded guilty in federal court to possessing a sodium cyanide bomb and is due to be sentenced in February, along with two compatriots. When Krar was arrested last April in Texas, federal officials also found a half-million rounds of ammunition, more than 60 pipe bombs, briefcase bombs, land mine components, a cache of deadly chemicals and a trove of neo-Nazi, antigovernment literature.

Levitas is a writer, researcher and expert on the activities of racist, anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi organizations and the author of The Terrorist Next Door: The Militia Movement and the Radical Right, recently released in paperback by St. Martin's Press (Griffin).

According to Levitas, who has testified for nearly two decades as an expert witness in state, federal and Canadian courts, the Krar case is only the most recent and dramatic example of the threat posed by domestic terrorists. James Kopp, who was found guilty in 2003 for the 1998 shooting of Dr. Barnett Slepian in Buffalo, N.Y., was affiliated with the shadowy underground anti-abortion network the Army of God. Matthew Hale, leader of the white supremacist group the World Church of the Creator, is due to stand trial in Chicago this year on charges of soliciting the murder of a federal judge. And Rafael Davila, a former Army National Guard intelligence officer from Washington State, is awaiting trial in Spokane, Wash., on espionage-related charges for allegedly stealing — and then planning to distribute — highly classified military documents to white supremacists in North Carolina, Texas and Georgia.

"Americans should question whether the Justice Department is making America's far-right fanatics a serious priority," Levitas told me. "And with the FBI still struggling to get up to speed on the threat posed by Islamic extremists abroad, it is questionable whether the agency has the manpower to keep tabs on our distinctly American terror cells."

Levitas' book traces the emergence of white supremacist paramilitary groups from their roots in the post-Civil War period, through the segregationist violence of the civil rights era to the present. He also examines the early days of right-wing tax protest in the 1960s and 1970s, the farm crisis of the 1980s and the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. In addition, Levitas outlines the contemporary movement's dangerous preoccupation with biological warfare such as anthrax.

Levitas recently spoke with me about the ideological roots of the white supremacist movement; the current state of far right and neo-Nazi organizing; the increase in anti-Semitism and anti-Arab bigotry in the wake of 9-11; and the likelihood that homegrown terrorists will strike again. Levitas' book was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award in 2002.

We heard a lot about the militia movement in the 1990s. How come we don't hear much about them today?

Daniel Levitas: The events of 9-11 have really overshadowed everything on the subject of terrorism, and so if the story is not about fanatically violent Islamicists or the discovery of weapons of mass destruction in the desert of Iraq, it is harder to focus the attention of both the media and law enforcement. Of course, there have been high-profile stories about the radical right here at home — the arrest of alleged abortion clinic bomber Eric Rudolph is a good example — but, by and large, there is just less interest in our American versions of Al Qaeda. Rest assured, if the arsenals attributed to right-wing extremists were found in the hands of people linked to Islamic terrorists here in the United States, we'd be hearing very often and loudly about it from the U.S. Attorney General, John Ashcroft.

That's straightforward enough. But isn't it also true that the militia movement basically fell apart after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing?

The militias were dealt a major setback, yes, but the movement hasn't entirely collapsed. Membership probably peaked at around 10,000 in the mid-1990s, and then fell sharply due to all the negative publicity and an extensive government crackdown after the destruction of the Murrah Building. Of course, the FBI and the Justice Department had been pretty clueless about the militias before the bombing, but afterwards they put on the heat. A lot of militia followers dropped out as a result. Some of them also left the movement in fear and disgust. They signed up to fight the blue-helmeted U.N. invaders of the "New World Order," not to kill innocent American civilians. And for many of these activists, seeing 168 corpses dragged from the rubble of the Murrah Building was enough to get them to quit.